Author Archives

Before Donating Your Body Was a Choice

Items are on display at German anatomist Gunther von Hagens' Body Worlds anatomical exhibition at VDNKh Exhibition Center. The bodies of donors are used for plastination. (Photo by Sergei SavostyanovTASS via Getty Images)

In recent years, museums around the world have been repatriating human remains — often gathered during colonial plunder — to their descendants. I myself am guilty of peering at human relics, having visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford, England, where shrunken heads of the Shuar people of the Amazon rainforest were once displayed (and have since been removed). 

But what about cadavers used for science? In Atlas Obscura, Jessica Leigh Hester deftly explains the dark history of obtaining bodies for anatomical study, with some also ending up on public display. “Harriet Cole,” a network of fibers fastened to a blackboard showing the human nervous system, is one of the most famous, receiving so much attention when first displayed in 1893 that Philadelphia physician William Weed van Baun wrote she “had greatness and world-renown forced upon her after her death.” It has been claimed “Harriet” was a black “scrubwoman” who left her body to the anatomist Rufus Weaver. However, once the story of “Harriet” is delved into, it seems unlikely that the body was a willing donation. In this piece, Hester discovers a world of the dead as full of social inequality as that of the living.

On a sweaty Saturday, before social distancing was the law of the land, a group of visitors gathered at Drexel University’s medical campus in Northwest Philadelphia to meet “Harriet.” The preamble to this encounter was a display case holding several unusual and meticulously prepared medical specimens, long used as teaching tools. Like “Harriet,” each had been created in the late 19th century by a star anatomist, Rufus Weaver. Now, behind glass, between the cadaver lab and a bookstore, a segment of intestine and a piece of a spinal cord sit in stillness. A dissected eyeball floats ethereally in century-old liquid, its separated parts looking like a tiny jellyfish, a bit of brittle plastic, a mushroom cap.

The practice of mainly white American physicians honing their skills on the bodies of disenfranchised people is a legacy of slavery, and an imagined racial hierarchy that propped up white supremacy. “It is one of the ironies of medical history that, although Blacks were generally regarded as ‘inferior’ or even ‘subhuman,’ their corpses were considered ‘good enough’ to use in the instruction of human anatomy,” write anthropologists Robert L. Blakely and Judith M. Harrington in Bones in the Basement: Postmortem Racism in Nineteenth-Century Medical Training. In her book The Price for Their Pound of Flesh, The Value of the Enslaved, From Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, University of Texas at Austin historian Daina Ramey Berry describes how the cadavers of enslaved people came to hold a “ghost value,” based on their appeal to 19th-century doctors and medical students—a final way to extract work from a person no longer living.

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The Syrian Rebels Who Found Refuge in Books

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Darayya in Syria was rendered a ghost town by Asaad’s regime after civic resistance — becoming a town of rubble where a mere 12,000 starving survivors clung on. One of these survivors was Ahmad Muaddamani, who spoke to Delphine Minoui from The Guardian about a remarkable thing that he and his friends did to keep life in Darayya bearable — they built a library. In books, the people left in Darayya found a refuge and an “atmosphere of collective intimacy, as well as a sense of ethics, discipline and, oddly enough, normality” that was shared by both civilians and fighters of the Free Syrian Army alike.

Fearing reprisals from the regime, the organisers decided this library would be kept in the greatest of secrecy. It would have neither name nor sign. It would be an underground space, protected from radar and shells, where avid and novice readers alike could gather. Reading as refuge. A page opening to the world when every door is locked. After scouring the city, Muaddamani and his friends uncovered the basement of an abandoned building at the border of the frontline, not far from the snipers, but largely spared rocket fire. Its inhabitants were gone. The volunteers hurriedly constructed wooden shelves. They found paint to freshen the dusty walls. They reassembled two or three couches. Outside, they piled a few sandbags in front of the windows, and they brought a generator to provide electricity. For days, the book collectors busily dusted, glued, sorted, indexed and organised all these volumes. Now arranged by theme and in alphabetical order on overstuffed shelves, the books found a new, harmonious order.

These young Syrians cohabited with death night and day. Most of them had already lost everything – their homes, their friends, their parents. Amid the chaos, they clung to books as if to life, hoping for a better tomorrow, for a better political system. Driven by their thirst for culture, they were quietly developing an idea of what democracy should be. An idea that challenged the regime’s tyranny and Islamic State’s book burners. Muaddamani and his friends were true soldiers for peace.

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The Struggle of Having a Pandemic Baby

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Coping with the pandemic over the past year has been tough for many people — but imagine dealing with this strange new reality whilst also bringing a whole new person, or even two, into the world. Sophie Gilbert experienced this firsthand, explaining in The Atlantic how the only people to really see her pregnant were her husband, doctors, and doormen, with the isolation only increasing once her twins arrived. With powerful honesty, Gilbert explains the difficulty of becoming a new parent when your support systems are locked down. Not only do you have to figure a whole lot out for yourself, but your new identity as a mother occurs in a vacuum, with no one bearing witness to the transformation, or to the loneliness. 

Every person who’s given birth during the past year, I’d guess, has experienced a version of the same thing—a sense of isolation so acute that it’s hard to process. I was used to loneliness being something like a dull throb, a kind of ambient hum that rose or fell depending on what else was going on. The isolation of pandemic new parenthood was different. It felt like a wound. It stung bitterly from the very beginning, and every day that went by only made it more raw. Every milestone that my babies hit without anyone being around to witness it was colored with some grief. Every month we spent in the square-mile perimeter of our neighborhood made it harder to imagine ever leaving. Thanksgiving dinner, which we scarfed down on the couch after the twins fell asleep, was surprisingly comforting, but Christmas made me ache for everything it didn’t have. I can now see the same fragments of hope on the horizon that everyone can—vaccines, maybe a return to the office, some eventual imitation of “normalcy.” But the life that I had is gone, and I don’t know how to imagine a new one that has room for my children and anything else. Every second during which I’ve been a mother has been defined by closing off, shutting down, and retreating into a space small enough where the four of us can be safe.

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Forget the Sheep, Pass the Dog

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Dogs have long had a place by people’s side, and hundreds of years ago in southern British Columbia, small-sized domestic dogs were particularly abundant — although for a rather surprising reason: their fur.  Elders from the Nuu-chah-nulth communities on Vancouver Island’s west coast and Coast Salish elders on the island’s east coast and the mainland have an oral history detailing these dogs — which were small, white, fluffy, and loved. Women weavers would care for the dogs, who lived isolated on small islands to prevent interbreeding with hunting dogs. They were fed a special diet and a couple of times a year were sheered like sheep for their wool coats, out of which the women made blankets.

As Virginia Morell explains for Hakai Magazine, the arrival of the Hudson Bay company, and with it a supply of cheap blankets, gradually destroyed the need for the wool dogs, which merged with other domestic dogs and disappeared. Proving their existence has been a challenge for archaeologists. However, over the years new avenues of research have shown the importance of these dogs — with a particular breakthrough being made in 2002, when historian Candace Wellman in Bellingham, Washington opened a drawer and found a woollen pelt. The owner? A fluffy white dog from 1859 called Mutton.

Sometime before 1858, Mutton, a wooly dog, had found himself a new keeper, George Gibbs, a 19th-century ethnographer with the Pacific Railroad Survey and the Northwest Boundary Survey. Gibbs studied the customs and languages of peoples in the Pacific Northwest, and in his notes on the Nisqually language, he recorded the name of the dog wool blankets as Ko-matl’-ked. Mutton likely came from a Coast Salish village in British Columbia. Gibbs named the dog for his love of chasing sheep.

Not too much is known about Mutton in life, though apparently goats also attracted him. In 1859, Mutton ate the head off a mountain goat skin that was in Gibbs’s care, bringing a colleague to near tears. Naturalist C. B. R. Kennerly had meant to send the skin as a specimen to the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC. “[Gibbs] sent it to me yesterday & when I opened the bag & saw the injury I could almost have cried,” Kennerly wrote in a letter. And more ominously, he added, “Mutton was sheared a short time ago, & as soon as his hair grows out we will make a specimen of him.” Which they did, at some point. In death, Mutton has shared the very essence of himself—his pelt—likely the only known wool dog hide to exist.

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The Joy of a Pointless Walk

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Every time I call my mum in England I get an update on two things — the weather, (both current and the range of rain, from drizzle to pouring, that has been experienced over previous days), and how many steps she has managed on her Fitbit. Walking is truly an English obsession, and in my time I have done my fair share of trudging over soggy fields, on a path to nowhere in particular. 

I, therefore, took great delight in reading Monica Heisey‘s essay for The Guardian detailing a Canadian’s perspective on the English love for the aimless amble. A particularly exciting walk might end with a pint of beer in a country pub — a reward for slurping through the mud, but England is currently in lockdown and pubs are closed, so Brits are embracing walking simply for walking’s sake.  Heisey writes of her experience of this great British pastime during Covid-19 with wonderful humor — so take a break from your lockdown walk, make a nice cup of tea, and give this essay a read instead.

I am, it seems, comfortably in the minority. After the Great Walking Holiday of 2020, I encountered pro-walking sentiment everywhere. Friends tracked steps with competitive rigour, fighting to be the first to reach 10k a day, or announcing grand Sunday schemes to cross London on foot. Planning a weekend in Herefordshire, I was inundated with recommendations for the county’s excellent walks. In fact, Airbnb reviews in the UK tend to focus on two things: whether or not the property provides an adequate electric kettle, and the quality and abundance of nearby walking routes. Recently, watching The Crown on Netflix, I had the disorienting and novel experience of feeling sympathy for Margaret Thatcher who, in an episode set at Balmoral, is dragged out on the royal family’s favourite pastime, “walking around in terrible weather wearing the thickest socks imaginable”. The prime minister has not brought appropriate attire (brown shoes, aforementioned huge socks, waxed jacket, head hanky), and is treated with scorn for it. But why?

There is something in the British that mistrusts pleasure. Why sit and chat in your lovely rented holiday cottage when you can walk through 40 different kinds of mud wearing the wrong shoes, everyone trying tensely not to be the first person to suggest heading home? Why take a gentle cycle ride near your hotel (or tent or caravan) in the Lake District when you can load yourself up with too much expensive gear and walk for hours, the only delight ahead a faux chipper “Hiya!” to the other miserable, sunburned walkers you pass, everyone somehow too cold yet also sweating in their moisture-wicking gilets?

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“Can I Get You a Nice Chianti?”

Anthony Hopkins & Jodie Foster during Anthony Hopkins being honored with a star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame at Hollywood Blvd. (Photo by Gregg DeGuire/WireImage)

It’s been 30 years since The Silence of the Lambs was released, a film that introduced us to Hannibal Lector,  a cannibal who became the archetype of a serial killer. The plot is based around his relationship with trainee FBI agent, Clarice Starling, sent to delve into Lecter’s mind in an attempt to find another murderer named Buffalo Bill. I rewatched it a few weeks ago, and was as gripped and chilled as the first time I saw it (as a teenager, clutching a pillow to hide behind).

In this fascinating interview with Tananarive Due for Vanity Fair the two stars — Jodi Foster and Anthony Hopkins — explain what it is that makes the film so powerful, even though “there’s really no blood and gore,” and Hopkins portrays Lecter as “a gentleman. He has finesse.” Their pride in the film is evident, and even decades later when still teased with one of the film’s most famous lines — about a certain type of wine and some liver — they don’t mind “because it’s just such a damn good movie.”

You talk about the relationship between Lecter and Clarice as a kind of courtship. One of the elements is revelation and honesty: “Okay, tell me your worst childhood story, and I’ll tell you what you want to know.”

HOPKINS: I’ve never admitted this publicly, but when I was in the Royal Academy, there was a teacher we had, a Stanislavsky method teacher, and he was lethal. He was very charismatic, and he was deadly. He would rip you apart. He would just take you apart intellectually. He’d just smirk, and he’d say, “No. Do it again.” His name is Christopher Fettes. He’s retired now. You’d do a piece, and he’d say, “Do it again. No.” I based it on him: “No, Clarice.”

This teacher had stayed in my conscience all my life. I got a phone call afterwards: “Tony, it’s a wonderful performance. Did you base that on me, by any chance?”

[Laughter.]

FOSTER: Lecter needs, wants, to be seen as human. And if you don’t see him as human, you’re going to get eaten. So I think there’s something really beautiful about the fact that they relate to each other’s humanity. When Lecter takes in Clarice’s pain, when he breathes it in, or he hears her story about the lambs, it’s not because it’s a story that’s filled with blood and gore. It’s a tiny story of pain. And to him, that’s what connection is.

HOPKINS: The only physical connection that Clarice and Lecter have is when she takes the case file and they touch fingers. That’s a talisman of some kind—of relationship, of love, romance, whatever, had it been a different world.

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Graded by an Algorithm

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Exam results were a big topic in my family last summer — with my nephew attempting to get the grades he needed to go to university. Like everything in 2020, things had changed due to Covid-19, and instead of sitting exams, British students were told that their results, and futures, were being decided by an algorithm. For some, including my nephew, this led to grades they were not expecting. 

For The Guardian, Tom Lamont explores the drama that unfolded on results day in August 2020, when perhaps the first algorithm in the history of computer science was “condemned on the front page of every major British newspaper.” Algorithms surround us in all parts of life, “influencing what interest rates we’re offered, how long we’ll wait for hip surgery, when’s ideal for the next Justin Bieber album to drop,” but they had not previously graded students on this scale. The attempt was an unmitigated disaster, and in the wake of “bright students in historically low-achieving schools tumbling, sometimes in great, cliff-edge drops of two or three grades” it was only a few days before the government revoked the whole system, asking teachers to grade their pupils instead.

For some seeking university places it was too late, and Lamont exposes the people damned by the code in the agonizing journey of Josiah Elleston-Burrell — who is fighting for his place to study architecture at UCL. Josiah’s dedication to his dream is inspiring, and this article immerses you in his personal grades drama — and makes you fully invested in the outcome.

I was curious what would happen to this ambitious, dead-set young man, and we met up several times in 2019, usually before he began a shift at the Waitrose supermarket where he worked. One day, just off the Croydon train, Elleston-Burrell confessed to a daydream: switching platforms instead and carrying on into London in the direction of UCL’s architecture building. He could see the backpack he would carry. His outfit. The dangling lanyard with his shiny undergraduate ID.

On 16 August, after Roger Taylor acknowledged “a situation that was rapidly getting out of control”, a decision was made that the Approach-1 algorithm was by now so tarnished it would be better if they abandoned it. Elleston-Burrell was at work the next day, on 17 August, when he heard. Ofqual and the government had decided that every student in England would now receive the grades that were predicted by their teachers back in June. For some, this was good news. (In Oxford, that talented young English student got her A* after all.) Others were left stranded, their grades a lot better, but their places at university gone. When I got through to Elleston-Burrell that day, he was trying to brave it out, but he sounded glum. He kept repeating, dazedly, “I don’t even know, man.”

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Taking Your Butt to a Higher Level

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A decade ago, a BBL (Brazilian Butt Lift) was a relatively rare occurrence, but in her piece for The Guardian, Sophie Elmhirst discovers that since 2015 the number of butt lifts performed globally has grown by a whopping 77.7%. Kim Kardashian can take a big chunk of the credit for this, as the proud owner of the most famous bottom in the world, “a bottom so scrutinized, so emulated, so monetized, that it no longer feels like a body part, but its own high-concept venture, its own startup turned major IPO.” However, no one knows how long the fashion for a bottom that resembles “a bauble wrapped in skin” will last, or what will happen when it ends. While it remains in vogue, there are many women willing to run the gauntlet of having fat strategically molded into their rear ends — and some have paid for it with their life.

A patient has to wait weeks before they know what their bottom will ultimately look like. The fat takes time to settle, and Glancey has to remind her patients that at best, only about 50% of the fat “takes”. The rest is absorbed by the body and ejected through the lymphatic system. To optimise the amount of fat that survives in the body requires a surgeon’s skill. Glancey compares it to creating a garden: you can’t put plants too close together, they need space to thrive. “When I say this to patients, they just say put more in,” she said. “And I say, well, it doesn’t work like that.” Glancey sticks to the UK guidelines and limits how much she will insert – 300cc per buttock, a little less than a can of Coke. She tells her patients to complete the BBL over more than one operation, adding a little at a time.

In Turkey, the most popular destination for cosmetic surgery patients travelling abroad in Europe – and the third most popular in the world, after Thailand and Mexico – the limits are less conservative. Some surgeons openly advertise on social media that they will insert more than 1,000cc into a patient’s buttocks. Glancey says that she regularly sees patients who have returned from Turkey unhappy with the results, often because a significant quantity of fat has died and left them lopsided or misshapen.

The risk involved in performing a BBL is not only about the quantity of fat, but how it is inserted. (Also, whether it is fat being inserted at all: a number of recent deaths associated with buttock augmentation occurred because the patient was being injected with silicone.) During the operation, the danger occurs at a very precise moment: the insertion of the cannula into the buttock. As it goes under the skin, the cannula has to remain above the gluteal muscle. If it goes below, and fat enters the bloodstream, fat droplets can then coalesce, travel through the blood and cause a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot in the lungs – the cause of death in the case of the British woman, Leah Cambridge, who had a BBL at a private clinic in Izmir in 2018.

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The Big Bear Reading List

Image: Carolyn Wells

Growing up in England, my knowledge of bears largely came from Yogi Bear cartoons, and on a childhood holiday to North America, it wasn’t Disneyland, but the thought of seeing a real-life Yogi that I was most excited about. However, despite my parents stoically driving a hire car down treacherous mountain roads as I lounged in the back bemoaning the lack of performing bears, it never happened.

It wasn’t until I moved to Canada many years later that I saw my first bear. I just turned a corner and there it was, a young black bear casually munching grass, completely unphased by my open-mouthed awe. Several years on, I have seen countless black bears; in fact, they rather enjoy relieving themselves on my front lawn after overindulging in next door’s apple trees. But my childhood wonder of them remains.

I am not the only one drawn to the subject; bears have inspired some wonderful articles, so I’ve compiled a reading list of six stories that not only look at bears, but the emotions and issues that they provoke.

1. Where Now Grizzly Bear? (Brian Payton, Hakai Magazine, January 2021)

In this article, Brian Payton shows grizzly bears to be intrepid explorers “destined to wander” — with male grizzlies swimming up to seven kilometers to find new territories. I found myself hypnotized by a map included in the piece, which tracks a grizzly bear as it travels an incredible 850 kilometers over five months. The positive side of grizzly bears turning up in new places is that, after decades of persecution, their numbers are finally improving and young males are looking to move away from “all these big dudes.” On the other hand, this means potential human conflict: “We know they will coexist with us. Their survival depends on our willingness to coexist with them.”

A bear emerges from dense vegetation and pauses on the shore. It’s early spring, and the young grizzly has only recently roused from hibernation, ravenous and driven. He lifts his head and gazes out across the falling tide to the opposite shore, where forested slopes are close enough to make out individual trees. The bear stands and sniffs the air.

Grizzlies can see about as well as we can, but it’s their olfactory powers—at least 2,000 times more acute than ours—that most likely set them in motion. We’ll never grasp how they perceive the world, let alone what they’re thinking. For some reason, this bear falls back on all fours, ambles away from prime habitat, and wades into the sea.

To reach the far shore, he dog-paddles west across Johnstone Strait, one of the narrowest navigable channels that make up the fabled Inside Passage. This stretch of water separates the North American mainland from the largest island on the Pacific coast, British Columbia’s Vancouver Island. It’s only three to 4.5 kilometers across but anywhere from 70 to 500 meters deep. Swift tidal currents can reach 15 kilometers per hour. Vessels of every description pass through, from kayaks to freighters, to cruise ships carrying thousands of passengers. At this time of year, the water temperature averages about 8 °C, but the bear has almost no fat left to insulate him from the cold.

2. Grizzlies at the Table (Jimmy Thomson, Beside Magazine, December 2020)

One place in which grizzly bears are more prevalent than ever is in Wuikinuxv, British Columbia. Jimmy Thomson’s beautiful piece highlights the respect that this First Nations community gives their frequent visitors. The bears are valued as an important part of the ecosystem: “In eating the salmon, the bears bridge the gap between the deep ocean and the treetops, dragging the wriggling essence of one ecosystem into another.” This article is full of such powerful imagery, and Thomson’s respect for the people who wish to defend these animals is apparent.

Adam Nelson pulls the band’s truck into the small landfill less than a kilometer from the village, as he does three times a week to keep bear attractants out of people’s homes, and honks his horn to avoid startling any nearby bears. He and Corey Hanuse toss the village’s garbage bags into the landfill and wait. Minutes later a large grizzly is tearing the bags apart.

An electrified fence around the landfill, installed at great expense, lasted three days. The bears pulled it open like a can of sardines and it hasn’t been repaired. Later, someone stole the batteries. The bears have become accustomed now to the easy food the dump has on offer, and most days it’s possible to find them snacking amongst the detritus. Better there than roaming the village.

3. Barbearians at the Gate (Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling, The Atavist Magazine, May 2018)

Bear intrusions are not so welcome in other areas. Matthew Hongoltz-Hetling’s article documents life in Grafton, New Hampshire, where residents believe “in untethering themselves from institution, foraging for food, and hunting game with guns, arrows, and knives.” Hongoltz-Hetling discovers a deep-rooted conflict in Grafton between man and bear, explaining the drama with a colorful array of local stories — about eaten cats and bear-fighting llamas, for instance — that tell us as much about the characters and colloquialisms of Grafton as about the bears themselves.

With bears reaching peak boogie man status, Hongoltz-Hetling also hears whispers of a darker side to the conflict — vigilante posses embarking on clandestine hunts of bears sleeping in their dens, even though “a person was (and still is) much more likely to suffocate in a giant vat of corn than be killed by a bear.” This article is an intriguing insight into small-town life — told through the bears.

Can bears be calculating? Babiarz and other Grafton residents I spoke to sure seemed to think so. Dave Thurber, a Vietnam War veteran who lives up the road from Jessica Soule, recounted how, one dark winter night, he had a feeling that something wasn’t right. He peeled back a corner of the curtains covering his living room windows and peered out at the front lawn, where he spotted a bear delicately licking sunflower seeds from a bird feeder. When a car approached, the bear flattened itself against a snowbank like an escaping prisoner evading a watchtower spotlight. After the car passed, the bear resumed eating.

Rumors of the bears’ cunning had planted unsettling questions in the minds of Grafton residents: How close are we to a bear right now? Could one be just beyond someone’s front door or hiding behind a nearby tree, casing a pet or, worse, someone’s child?

4. A Death in Yellowstone (Jessica Grose, Slate, April 2012)

How do you manage conflict between humans and bears when it escalates? That’s a dilemma faced by many park rangers. In the Yogi Bear cartoons, Yogi was a cheeky chap who loved to steal the odd picnic basket from guests at his home in Jellystone National Park. In this article, Jessica Grose discovers the stark reality that a fed bear is often a dead bear — for national parks are, ultimately, a human creation: “Its boundaries are built and monitored by the government, and the rangers are responsible for keeping its … visitors safe.” If a bear gets too close, the rangers have to play judge and jury on its life.

This was the case with Grose’s subject — the Wapiti sow — a bear thought to have been responsible for two deaths in Yellowstone National Park. Grose’s piece is a harrowing look at bear attacks and how rangers weigh up a bear’s guilt like a criminal case, with “ non-acidic envelopes for storing evidence, tweezers for picking up multicolored grizzly bear hairs, tape measures for measuring bear tracks.” The death penalty is based on whether a bear was acting in a naturally aggressive way or not. But what exactly is natural? The penal code for wild animals is a hard one to decipher.

Wildlife biologists like Kerry Gunther help the park’s crime-scene investigators by speculating on a bear’s emotional state. Based on the evidence at hand, he tries to determine whether a given act of bear aggression might have been a natural behavior—the result of being startled while feeding on an elk carcass, for example, or seeing someone approaching her cubs. If a bear appears to have followed a hiker down the trail instead of backing off, or if it attacked campers while they were asleep, that would be more unusual—the result, perhaps of a deranged grizzly mind.

In a mauling case like that of John Wallace, in which there are no living (human) witnesses, sorting out these categories of bear aggression can be especially vexing. But there’s one piece of circumstantial evidence that almost always leads to euthanasia: a half-eaten corpse. Under normal circumstances, the grizzly diet in Yellowstone is about 60 percent vegetarian—roots and nuts, with the remainder coming from pocket gophers, trout, elk, and bison. If the rangers have good reason to believe that a bear killed a human being and then consumed his body, that bear’s behavior will be deemed unnatural—and its crime a capital offense.

5. Lessons From a Bear Attack (Eva Holland, Cottage Life, December 2020)

Not all bears are given a guilty verdict after an attack. When Mya Helena Myllykoski and her son were charged by a grizzly bear, the bear received a reprieve for acting naturally to defend a moose carcass. In her interview with Eva Holland, Myllykoski describes her relief that the bear was spared, and how instead of paralyzing her with fear, the attack inspired her to fight to protect bears. Holland explores the fascinating psychology behind Myllykoski’s “post-traumatic growth,” as well as describing the attack itself in spine-tingling detail. Her account demonstrates great respect for the wilderness she is writing about — in a previous piece, “When a Fatal Grizzly Mauling Goes Viral,” Holland discusses her reluctance to report on bear attacks at all: They are incredibly rare, and she questions whether writing about them is anything more than voyeurism for those outside of bear country. This perspective brings sincerity, thoughtfulness, and understanding to her work on the subject.

When she shares that detail—that she has felt a grizzly bear’s hot breath on her face—I feel something unexpected creeping up inside me, a little green shoot alongside the larger growth of fear and fascination as I listen to her story: envy. Irrationally, against all logic or instinct for survival, I envy that experience, just a little. When she tells me that she regrets not having a memory of that smell, I understand what she means. I want to know what the bear smelled like too.

We crave vivid and authentic encounters with the wilderness. That, in part, is why we go out there, why we leave the city behind for an afternoon or a weekend, or more. We want to see the stars turn overhead and hear loons, owls, and coyotes; we want to watch the mist burn off a river’s surface, or a thunderstorm roll across a lake. We want to smell crushed spruce needles and wet, decomposing logs and that sweet dirt scent when the mushrooms begin to pop up.

Wilderness can feed us. It can fill our lives up with rich sensory memories. But we take risks in going there, and we bring risk with us for the animals that live there too. Sometimes we pay a price for our curiosity and our desires—but more often, they pay the price instead.

6. This Man Protected Wild Bears Every Day for 13 Years — Until He Made the Ultimate Sacrifice (Nick Jans, Reader’s Digest, June 2019)

Timothy Treadwell took the meaning of bear advocate to a whole new level. I first learned about Treadwell through watching Werner Herzog’s 2005 documentary Grizzly Man, an incredible film that uses sequences extracted from more than 100 hours of video footage shot by Treadwell during the last five years of his life — years he spent living amongst grizzly bears in Alaska. Nick Jans has also written a beautiful book about Treadwell, The Grizzly Maze, depicting the journey that led Treadwell to the bears, and the stunning, eerie landscape of Alaska that is their home.

In this excerpt for Reader’s Digest, Jans explains how Treadwell was a controversial figure, a self-styled “bear whisperer” who refused to accept bears as dangerous animals, and “gave them names like Thumper, Mr. Chocolate, and Squiggle. He would walk up to a half-ton wild animal with four-inch claws and two-inch fangs, and say, ‘Czar, I’m so worried! I can’t find little Booble.'” Jans provides a moving portrait of Treadwell, culminating in a gut-wrenching description of his final demise — mauled by a bear. Accustomed to recording his life, Treadwell and his girlfriend, Amie Huguenard, had a camera turned on during the attack: “Treadwell did not die quickly. The tape runs roughly six minutes, and his cries can be heard two-thirds of that time.”

While many believe Treadwell encroached on the life of the bears, rendering his end inevitable, he was still a remarkable, larger-than-life character, and Jans manages to capture him with his elegant prose.

Those searching for the meaning in what happened to Timothy Treadwell offer compelling theories, impossible to either prove or refute but containing flickers of insight. Bear-viewing guide Gary Porter says, “I think Timmy made a fundamental anthropomorphic error. Naming them and hanging around with them as long as he did, he probably forgot they were bears. And maybe they forgot, some of the time, he was human.” Porter points out that old, dominant males generally avoid people and are intolerant of other bears. A subordinate bear that refuses to move is attacked and, if it doesn’t retreat, is often killed and eaten. Biologist Larry Van Daele calls such an event “apparently more of a disciplinary action than predatory.”

And he, too, agrees there may be something to the theory, especially given “the strange, ambiguous signals Timothy sent to bears.”

“Maybe that big guy figured Timmy was just another bear,” Porter suggests. If so, it was a final, ironic compliment to a man who strove, among bears, to become as much like them as possible.

Getting Up When You Fall From the Sky

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Mountains can hold a great allure, and for some, the pull is so strong that they build their whole lives around them. This was the case for Erin Tierney, who left her family and friends to pursue a career as a heli-ski guide. It was a job that came with sacrifices and risks, but for Tierney, the feeling of “floating down the mountain through widely spaced trees, smashing through pillows of snow, and dropping into a bottomless white room without another track in sight” was worth it. That is until she fell from the sky. In this personal account for Outside, Tierney details the trip that ended in disaster — when the helicopter she was flying in with her group crashed onto the mountain. 

Time seemed to stop. I was suddenly in a dream state, suspended, watching myself stare open-mouthed at Jim. He allowed his training to take over and skillfully put the machine into an autorotation to prevent a catastrophic nosedive into the mountain. I didn’t speak. I felt like I was floating on a cloud and watching a film strip of green, white, and gray unravel before my eyes. I thought, “This isn’t so bad.”

Then, in an instant, I felt the hardest impact I’ve ever experienced. A jolt of pain and energy spiked through my back, traveling up my spine. My hands flew up like I was on an amusement park ride, momentarily suspended in the air while they fought gravity. The clipboard I’d been holding in my lap bounced up. I tried to catch it with my hands. The metal edge of it grazed my pinky finger, drawing blood. I slammed down in my seat.

Everything was white. Then dark. And silent. Except for the voice inside my head wondering if this was the moment I was going to die.

Tierney had three compression fractures in her thoracic spine from the crash. That explained her pain, but what was not explained were the other symptoms she continued to experience: her exhaustion, her anxiety. Tierney’s accident occurred at the brink of a new awareness of the complicated nature of concussion and PTSD, but it still took a long time for her to obtain this diagnosis, and many more years for her to understand the intricacies of this hidden trauma — and what it would take to ever get back into a helicopter. 

 My body and nervous system were in a constant state of fight or flight, running constantly from the “what-ifs” and “almosts” that consumed my thought patterns. I craved sleep, but it only made me more tired. I wanted silence, but the pressure in my head felt so loud. Quiet walks in the woods should have been healing, but the visual overload of colors and patterns made me dizzy and stumble. There were no casts, no crutches, no evident reason for my state. My injuries were invisible, except for the fading scar on my finger.

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